Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Making our way to Matsuyama

Well, my plans of a regular blog of this trip were thwarted by the fact that the southern half of Shikoku and the wifi network are apparently strangers to one another. I suppose it may have been easier to get online had we been sleeping in lovely, comfortable, soft, clean, yummy hotel beds but we were not. Since Kochi we have only had two nights paid accommodation - in a ryokan in Uwajima - which had no internet connection. The remainder of the time we have been sleeping in the tent or in other free accommodation and all our efforts (aside from the obvious walking stuff) have been devoted to finding somewhere to wash and satisfying more-or-less continual hunger pangs rather than Facebook and blogging.

Communications are not
always cutting edge
But now we are in Matsuyama with all mod cons. We were so excited to arrive here last night that we booked four nights instead of the two we originally planned. After walking over 800 kilometres we figured we deserved a rest, clean sheets and some time off the trail. So while Mick is happily catching up with the football results and listening to music on You Tube (he's currently listening to Marmalade's Reflections of my Life - must be this pilgrimage getting to him) I'll give a potted update of the last couple of weeks on the Henro Michi (the pilgrimage road) since leaving Kochi.

Refreshed after our stay in the hotel we caught the train back to Temple 28, Dainichi, to resume our walk. This was going to be a special day for us. When we set out to cycle the pilgrimage last September, it was at Kochi that we admitted, after a huge argument, that we had had enough and had given up the pilgrimage. Today we would walk past the place we had given up. This time we felt completely different and I realised how glad I was that Mick had suggested we come back to Shikoku and give ourselves and the pilgrimage another chance.

The fan
At Kokubunji, number 29, I lit my three incense sticks then gently blew them out. 'No blow,' a woman said to me who was lighting hers next to me. She waved her hand over the sticks to put out the flame. 'Like this.' Darn. After visiting 29 temples twice over I was still getting things wrong. And that's before I even start on the sutra reading which I won't even talk about except to say it's a bit of a shambles. As usual, after we had followed our temple rituals we sat on a bench just watching what was going on. The woman who had explained my latest faux pas came over and gave me a fan. I wasn't sure whether she did this because I looked hot or whether she thought I could use it to wave over the incense sticks - anyway, it was a plastic one in the shape of a goldfish bowl advertising Panasonic. I thought it was really cool.

Between Temple 29 and 30 we reached 'give up hut'. It was here last year that the guidebook had been flung into a clump of bamboo trees and then had to be fished out again by Mick dangling me off the side of the road. We had hung up our henro jackets in the hut and cycled off without a second look back. Now we stopped at the hut for photos and a celebratory segment of orange before jauntily heading on to the next temple in fine fettle.

At 'give up' hut. Not giving up. Not yet anyway.
We spent the next couple of days meandering around Kochi, on suburban streets, through lines of paddy fields and along busy roads. Near Temple 31 we found ourselves climbing up a steep wooded path before emerging into the most beautiful botanical gardens. Temple 31 itself, Chikurinji, was beautiful; I could easily have spent the rest of the day there had we more time. But we had been been  in Kochi for days now, it was time to move on.

Leaving Kochi the map gave us two choices for crossing Urado Bay - by walking across a mighty  bridge that spanned the bay or via a short free ferry service. We opted for the ferry. On the way down to the port a woman came over and gave us 200 yen each for a coffee. (This sort of thing happens a lot here, as I mentioned last year and which I'll talk about again in a later post. It's one of the things that makes this walk so special). She asked where we were headed and when we explained she pointed at the map and at the road and we thought she said (in Japanese) 'Oh but the ferry isn't running today, you'll need to walk over the bridge.'

We changed course and headed for the bridge. We had not walked far on it before we realised that we were in immediate risk of death or serious injury. The 'pavement' was only inches wide and our heads exactly level with the wing mirrors of the countless lorries that were thundering past us. Feeling panicky I looked down only to see the ferry chugging merrily out of the port below. More oaths of the non-pilgrim sort were uttered before we retreated from the scary bridge to wait an hour for the next boat. What the woman had actually said to us we never did discover.

That evening it was gone five o'clock and we sat outside a convenience store on a little wall debating where to stop for the night. A man on his bicycle stopped and asked us where we would camp. We said we didn't know and he told us to go up to Temple 35 and ask the head monk for the tatami room. The heady scent of orange blossom filled the air as we climbed the steep winding path to the temple in the fading light, passed on the way by the last pilgrims of the day as they made their way back down. It had been good advice - the temple was beautiful and the facilities provided were excellent - a private room to sleep, a large seating area and a sink and kettle, all for free. And in the morning we watched the first light enter the valley below from the terrace below the temple with no sound except the singing of birds. I sat for a long time by the fishpond, watching pond skaters delicately crossing the water and a spider catching a fly in its web.

The temples were more widely spaced now as we made our way down the second pointy bit of Shikoku, Cape Ashizuri. Facilities were sparser too as we neared the Cape, and it was too late that we realised we had passed our last chance for the day of something to eat. We ate a sparse supper of twelve almonds each, consoling ourselves that tomorrow we would make an early start and get to the shop when it opened at nine. Except it was Wednesday. Apparently, as we were informed by the nice lady in the post office, the shop did not open on Wednesdays. We had to content ourselves with a packet of 'Calorie-Mate' which quite frankly tasted disgusting, until we finally reached the Cape and to our relief found a small restaurant serving food.

Unloading the catch
Smoking saba (mackerel)

Our 'house'
Many pilgrims retrace the route back up from Cape Ashizuri but we decided to go on round the Cape and come up the other side. After all, we may never come this way again, and going on felt better to us than going back. We were delayed for a day by a dramatic and heavy rainstorm which we sat out camped under a wooden hut, but the following day was warm and sunny and the rain was soon forgotten. At Sukomo we stayed in the michi-no-eki (road station) in a superb two-storey pilgrim hut. As it got dark, the owner of the cafe at the michi who had kindly already been over and fitted some netting to keep out the wind, called us down from our lodging on the upper level. Two other tourists from Sendai were there, holding sticks. He gave us a stick each and motioned us all to follow him. We had no idea what was afoot but obediently off we all went, down the road and along small paths between paddy fields, tapping our sticks all the while to ward off the snakes. Suddenly our leader gave the command to switch off our headlights. We did so and the fields were filled with the tiny dancing lights of fireflies. It was magical. And then he began to sing in Japanese, a haunting song, while we stood and watched the pulsing lights. It felt quite extraordinary. When he finished we gave a resounding round of applause and he beamed and took a bow before leading us back to the michi-no-eki. The evening was not over though, as our polymath host then produced a telescope and we spent the next hour examining the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter before finally returning to our little house in the car-park.

The beloved Terra Nova needs repairing
Rounding the second cape had done wonders for our morale and now, as we made our way north we reached the halfway point, Temple Forty, the temple farthest away from Temple One. But with each day we were also feeling more weary. The weather was heating up and I agreed with Mick that the only way we were going to manage this walk was to work with the climate by getting up earlier. By now the days had fallen into a routine. The alarm goes off at four, and by half-past we drag ourselves out of our tent. We aim to be packed away and drinking coffee by five and walking by five thirty, or six at the latest. That way we get the bulk of our walking done in the cooler morning air. Twenty kilometres by lunchtime and a few more in the afternoon. At the end of each day I black in a little more of the map with my pen to reflect our progress for the day. The scrabble remains hardly used. Walk, eat, sleep. Walk eat sleep. Repeat. By now I am using my rucksack to hold up my trousers which have become too big for me and we have not had an alcoholic drink since the day we left Osaka.

The 'half price' sticker is useful to learn
This little fella popped out when I went to wash...
We stayed at Uwajima for two nights in a ryokan. The room was beautiful, a suite with tatami mats and paper screens and a small central table and chairs. But my plan of lounging in bed all day was thwarted when we were turned out at eleven for the room to be cleaned. I wondered whether the manager thought us a little lazy for lounging in bed all day. 'But I've just walked seven hundred kilometres!' I wanted to whine in my defence. Instead we mooched down the road under complimentary umbrellas and sat in a cafe for an hour before returning to our room, unfolding the packed away futons and lying back down where we stayed for the rest of the day.

Tunnels do the job but are not pleasant...

especially when they are this long.

Kukai sleeping under a bridge

This church is fibreglass!
We were heading towards Matsuyama but first came the climb up to Kuma Kōgen Highland, a high area of mountains where temples 44 and 45 are situated. It was a long hot climb to the town of Kuma and we decided to call it a day and visit Daihoji, number 44 the following morning. Our rest day was marred somewhat by a friendly but increasingly voluble cycling henro who was having a fine time on Asahi and sake. His English was as poor as our Japanese and we had little idea what he was saying. Eventually we politely said goodbye and wished him well and walked off to a nearby hut where we planned to pitch up for the night. Undeterred he gathered his things and came over to join us and eventually we pitched our tents side by side. In the morning he was as quiet as a mouse as he packed his gear onto his bike and cycled off.

Enormous trees on the path to Iwayaji
Temple 44 was the first temple we had come across which looked a little neglected. It had huge straw sandals in the entrance which apparently are remade every hundred years. Perhaps they were nearing the end of their time and so could be excused looking a little tired. But the rest of the temple too seemed a little unkempt, different from the immaculate gardens we usually found. Our guidebook advised leaving backpacks at Kuma as the route to Temple 45, Iwayaji or 'Temple of the Rocky Caves' is a 'there and back again' route but we had nowhere to leave them and after all, we had carried them everywhere else so we thought another 20k would make little difference. It was a superb walk, one of my favourite parts so far, along forest tracks which climbed up to a long ridge before descending down a path which ran between enormous trees and towering cliffs. The temple itself is built, as its name suggests, into the cliffs, and is utterly stunning. It was hard to pull ourselves away and make the long descent to the road and our return route to Kuma. That night we camped at a roadside pull-in ten kilometres down the road. We wanted to be in a position to get off the mountain the next morning as we had been informed more than once that heavy rain was forecast. So when our alarm went at four am we dispensed with coffee and breakfast and headed straight off and soon we were on Misatoke Pass and climbing down through the woods. Halfway down I took a tumble and ripped a hole in the knee of my new £90 overtrousers. I cheered up though when I realised I had accidentally been wearing them back to front and so the hole was in the back of the leg not the front. Nothing that a length of black duct tape would't fix!

Tea grower near Iwayaji

By the time the rain started in earnest we were down the mountain and on the outskirts of Matsuyama. We meandered about from temple to temple, accompanied by a very nice young chap called Kenji who was from Tokyo and who spoke excellent English. Kenji seemed totally unfazed by the rain as we got wetter and wetter as we walked along. If we had been on our own we would have taken refuge somewhere long ago. We asked him if he wanted to stop for for something to eat but he said he usually skipped lunch. Eventually we apologised to him and said we were bailing out and headed off in search of something to eat. It was gone three and most of the restaurants were closing. As we stood there wondering what to do a woman pulled over and asked if we were going to the next temple. We shook our heads and explained we were hungry. She motioned for us to get in her car and then she drove us down the road to a lovely udon bar where we sat for two hours stuffing our faces on noodles and tempura until the rain went off. We visited Temple 50 and then headed to 51 where we had heard there was a beautiful tsuyado (free accommodation). The monk at the temple verified we were walking pilgrims and carefully took our names and addresses before showing us to a large room above a storehouse at the back of the temple complex with blankets on the floor. It did not look very inviting, perhaps we had been spoilt by Temple 35. When we realised there was no electricity there either we decided not to stay and instead headed on to the superb Sen Guesthouse a day earlier than planned. Although they were fully booked Matthew and Nori, our hosts, were wonderfully accommodating and made up a bed for us in the staff room. What a joy it was to sit at the table chatting with the other guests while supping wine and whisky which went straight to my head after six weeks of abstinence. A few days here would surely recharge our batteries for the next section of our walk.

Thanks for reading. This turned into a long post and yet I feel I've only scratched the surface of what I want to say about this walk and this place. But I'll save it for another time. Mick's just poured me a beer and I'm off to relax. Cheers!

Ps. I forgot to say that somewhere along the way, when we were near Ashizuri, I celebrated my 51st birthday. Mick presented me with a surprise 'cake' in the form of a cream crêpe and as it was a special day I treated myself to an extra ten minutes in bed, and got up at twenty to five instead of half past four.  We were still asleep by half-past seven that evening though and it is the first birthday I have celebrated without alcohol since about 1979! 

Monday, 5 May 2014

Shikoku gets serious

After a restful afternoon at Hiwasa, the next morning, day 11, we had the long walk ahead - 75 kilometres down the coast to Cape Muroto, the first of Shikoku's two southern 'pointy bits'. We had bumped into Hamish and his friends again in Hiwasa and we gave them a jaunty wave goodbye as we set off down the road. We were feeling sprightly and clean after our visit to the launderette and the onsen (hot bath) the previous day. We didn't know it but we wouldn't look presentable for long...

Hamish, Kenji and Misa at Hiwasa

We detoured off the henro route for the first few kilometres, opting instead for the Minami-awa Sun Line, a scenic road that wound its way through the mountains with magnificent views. The road was quiet and we loved the walk, especially when we spotted a troup of Japanese macaques wandering across the road. But by the time we reached the town of Mugi at the end of the Sun Line and bumped into Hamish and the gang yet again, who had caught up by going down the main road, it had started to rain. I was carrying a heavy Japanese parasol which we had been given, kindly meant but totally impractical to carry for 1200 kilometres. We tried to refuse it but the couple who gave it to us had insisted. Still it came in useful for a while as the rain gear I had brought (a cape which was too short, some cut off waterproof shorts!!?? and knee length waterproof socks) proved utterly useless. Through the afternoon the rain became gradually heavier and we caved in early, setting up camp on the side of the road.

Macaques on the Sun Line
This couple love their mini!
The parasol was a kind gift - but very heavy
Trying to stay dry...

The next morning it was still raining. And then rained some more. Every time I thought it couldn't physically come down any faster, it did, hammering down in sheets. I was drenched from head to toe and Mick wasn't faring much better, though at least his legs were dry in his new Mountain Equipment Goretex Overtrousers. He wasted no time in pointing out that I should have bought a pair too, and I knew he was right. It was so annoying. Eventually I bought a pair of 500 yen plastic trousers and coat in a convenience store which had the effect of keeping my legs out of the rain but soon had them running with sweat instead. We managed ten kilometres in total before giving in and taking refuge in a park shelter until the rain went off. The next morning we were still there.

The rain had finally stopped so I reluctantly put on my soaking wet gear and shoes. I set off a few minutes ahead of Mick and around the corner I met the principal of the local elementary school who insisted on making all the children stop. line up and say hello to me as they trooped into the school gates while I stood there nodding, smiling and saying hello, my clothes steaming gently in the morning sunshine.

This Henro had quite a system going with a
waist harness and carabiners
Couple Rock

But soon we were dry, except for our shoes, and at least we made reasonable progress of around 30 kilometres. By the end of the day we were back to dripping with sweat. Was it always this hot at the beginning of May? We were feeling tired and grubby and decided to knock on the door of a minshuku (a family run guesthouse) but got no reply. Instead we made camp in the grounds of a disused school. At least the outside taps were still supplying running water although there were no toilets so I had to disappear into the woods armed with a stick for digging a hole while keeping a lookout for snakes...

In the night I could hear monkeys making a din in the woods behind the school; I wondered whether they were annoyed at the appearance of the two upright apes, perhaps normally they ventured into the abandoned playground to have a go on the old swings and the climbing frame and maybe a game of baseball with the bats and balls left lying around in the yard.

Camp at the school
I can think of worse places to stop for breakfast...
Pillow lava formed by underwater volcanoes, Muroto Geopark

Superb henro facility at Meitokuji Shrine

Including tea and coffee...
On day 15 we made it down to the end of the cape and climbed up through the woods to Temple 24, Hotsumisakiji. Just as we reached the temple along the woodland path I heard Mick, who was in front, yell out. When I reached him he was pointing frantically to the side of the path. I looked and saw a huge black snake slithering away over the bank, it was a good five foot long. Mick had almost trod on it as it crossed the path in front of him, only seeing it at the very last moment. Ten minutes later in the temple I overheard him telling another pilgrim about it…'and this snake was at least eight foot long…'

Reclining Buddha, Cape Muroto
Young Daishi Statue, Cape Muroto

Delightful path up to Hotsumisakiji….
…until Mick nearly trod on the snake...
Hotsumisakiji, Temple 24

Running Henro
We rounded Cape Muruto and headed up the other side of the coast towards Kōchi; this side seemed much more affluent with pretty houses and gardens lining the roads. But between us and Kochi city was our nemesis, Kōnomineji,Temple 27. This temple had finished us off when we tried to cycle the henro michi last year. It's not as high as some of the temples we had already visited but there was something about the approach to this one, up an interminable road, culminating in a climb for the last kilometres at a gradient of forty-five degrees that we both found almost intolerable. We were not looking forward to it. We decided to tackle it first thing, before it got too hot. We had started, as Mick had suggested, to set the alarm for five and were normally walking by six-thirty. This day the alarm went off at four am. 'Why am I doing this again?' I thought grumpily as I packed away my sleeping bag. By six we were halfway up the road that led through the valley and up the mountain to the temple, even so there were a good number of other pilgrims on the road with us An early start was the thing to do. We puffed our way up to the top, and it was with some relief that we finally found ourselves at the gate to the temple and I put a few extra yen in the collection box as a sign of my gratitude. As we left a young woman ran past on her way in. She had run up the mountain. Shortly afterwards a man pedalled up on his bike and dismounted next to us. It was some time before he was able to speak. 'Steep,' he gasped. I couldn't help but agree.
Fudō Myōō, Temple 27

Mick finds not talking a strain...
At Temple 27 we bumped into Hamish again. I asked where his companions were and he said he had decided to come on ahead. He wanted to walk the pilgrimage alone. I could understand why. This pilgrimage is a solitary one I think. Many pilgrims seem to walk this walk alone, although people gather at huts and rest places for a chat. And I notice that even when people walk in pairs or groups, little conversation takes place. Even Mick has started to go quiet and there is no sound but the tapping of our sticks and the tinkling of the bells we wear to frighten the snakes (not that this seems to work). Sometimes he is quiet for as much as ten minutes at a time, although admittedly this is something of a strain.
Terraced paddy fields
From Cape Muroto to Kōchi the route follows the Pacific coastline. Walking here it is clear how much effort and concrete the Japanese expend on holding back the mountains on one side and the ocean on the other, protecting the habitable sliver of land in between. Harbours are backed by huge sea walls and brand new tsunami escape routes climb up the mountains. It is clearly a constant and expensive battle to try to keep these powerful forces at bay.

Typhoon breakwater
At Aki we decided to try and find the sento (public bath house) as it was now a week since we have had a proper wash. I had learned the Japanese phrase to ask for directions and stopped someone to ask the whereabouts of the sento. Unfortunately I hadn't learned enough Japanese to understand the answer. We wandered around the town for an hour before an old man took pity on us, fetched his bike and led us right to the door. We spent an hour in there and it was wonderful to be clean again, even if we did have to put our dirty clothes back on afterwards.

New signpost on the trail
A useful sign to learn (toilet)
Sunday, Day 18. Our route took us along a cycle path, fifteen kilometres long, and gloriously traffic free. Along the way we stumbled across a Harley Davidson bike meet which Mick loved before ending up at a beach and water resort where the sea was full of kayaks and little sailing dinghies.  It is Golden Week in Japan, a popular holiday period and the michi-no-eki (road station) at the resort was packed. We sat for ages on a bench overlooking the water, enjoying the fresh breeze coming off the Pacific.

Bikers at the Harley Davidson meet

Different sort of bike -
Cycle path between Aki and Yasu

Maybe it is all getting too much...
Akano rest station

My legs were aching and I had shooting pains in my ankles while Mick had developed blisters from walking in wet shoes earlier in the week. We made it to Temple 28 on the edge of Kōchi but it was a struggle. We have walked 200 miles since we set off. We needed a rest.

Mick looked at the map and made a suggestion. 'There's a station less than a kilometre away from here. Why don't we get a train into Kōchi and book two nights in a hotel? We can come back on Tuesday to resume the walk. That's assuming we can book into a hotel in GoldenWeek.' This sounded like an excellent idea. With the rain, the snake incident and the ever increasing mileage, it felt like Shikoku, after a gentle introduction, was yelling us not to take her for granted. We were being reminded that this is no easy walk. Some respite would be welcome before we tackle the next section.

An hour later we were in the lobby of the Green Hotel where after some negotiation the manager gave us a pilgrim price deal for two nights. Tomorrow we will rest and then go in search of some waterproof trousers. I have a feeling I might need them.

Our route so far: